CWI crisis

Changing the world A comrade from the Militant tradition reflects on the parting of the ways

My association with the Socialist Party, formerly the Militant Tendency, part of the Committee for a Workers' International, has come to an end. My involvement lasted for about 15 years, including a few moments of pique, flouncing off in exasperation at some of the more sectarian moments of that organisation. During my period of membership I have donated thousands of pounds and hundreds of hours of my time, 99% of which I do not regret.

I joined the Militant through the usual avenue of the Labour Party and its then youth wing, the Labour Party Young Socialists, as a teenager. Then the organisation was at the cutting edge of labour movement politics, claiming MPs, trade union general secretaries and a network of influence throughout the Labour Party, including councillors and Constituency Labour Party secretaries. It could rightly claim despite its faults to be the backbone of the left.

I joined as a socialist, wanting to be convinced that socialism could be achieved. The organisation gave me a bundle of papers and directed me towards aged, reactionary, rightwing Labour Party types to face down at countless meetings. The high street was my domain, selected texts thrust in bag and cash taken from me for the organisation. Kisses interspersed with the transitional programme, beer quaffed over tactical decision-making - wonderful days.

The organisation was very impressive: the palpable self-sacrifice of the comrades, the dynamism of some excusing the eccentricity of others, the grand centre, the seemingly never ending growth pointed towards the future, or the "music of the future", as was the usual refrain. Membership levelled off, however, and fell almost as soon as I joined (I do not think this is connected), but still the organisation soldiered on: the poll tax, the Youth against Racism in Europe demo in Brussels, the anti-racist work: it all held us in.

However, the fall of the Berlin wall and the crushing of the "degenerate workers' states", without the promised political revolution, without the workers defending their "gains", confused many a good comrade. This was not possible - or so said our leadership. It did not lead to the red 90s; it led to confusion for socialists, communists and the workers' movement across the globe. You can hardly blame the CWI for that. However, at this point one of the other issues came into play.

How to answer the mistakes of the organisation? Sure, in many respects it had its debates and squabbles that passed for democracy, but these were always over secondary issues. There was no debate on the big issues. Indeed I feel, having been fed a strict diet of selected material - Trotsky, bits of Marx, etc - I was unable to comprehend or even begin to articulate such questions. The organisation did not train us well for such things: debate, certainly questioning the sacred certainties, was not on; there was no atmosphere for unorthodoxy. No debate, no honest accounting of mistakes and no real striving for an accurate look at the world.

The other groups on the left had always been despised and so they appeared to me, with good reason, "sects on the fringes of the labour movement." This was obviously sometimes the case, and the lack of working class base and the mythology built around the other groups kept the organisation insulated from outside ideas. The disunity of the left had always been explained away as necessary, as "they endangered the success of the revolution". They were seen as a barrier and contact was kept to a minimum. Aged tankies lost in the Labour Party, rightwingers such as EEPTU monsters were honest, but the left and challenging ideas form a no-no.

I suppose this is where I went wrong ... That the USSR had been somehow progressive, that Militant's vision of socialism involved communal laundry facilities and 24-hour crèches, so you were liberated from childcare, seemed a tad scary and not my vision really of the future of humanity. Still I stayed for a while.

So, to cut a long story short (thank god, you say), the Socialist Alliances, open debate and my meeting with the regional secretary to discuss my "application" for membership. As I mentioned previously, I had flounced out of the SP, not being able to cope with the negativity of the organisation and the near hysteria regarding the alliance phase one and two. I left my organisation in a none too endearing way.

My re-application for membership was accepted last summer. My feeling was, 'For god's sake, whether I like it or not, I am a CWIer. It has been implanted on my DNA somehow: I can't shake it off.' I understand the dialect and the telepathic method of debate which is all in code and refrains from actually putting your colours to the mast in any way that could damage the party. My local comrades in my new home area in the north-east were a good bunch: pro-alliance (which was a change from my time in London) and I was accepted like the prodigal son, my eccentricities (their perception, not mine) taken. Branches attended, etc, then that rascal Harry Paterson expelled.

This was nothing new: I had never hid my feelings in regard to the treatment of Pakistani, US, Mersey, Scottish comrades and everyone knew of my position of not necessarily supporting these comrades politically, but my distaste at the handling of these affairs and the lack of open and accountable debate.

However, the expulsion of Harry lead to a protest letter, which ended up in the Weekly Worker. Oh sin of sins, at my table notes were taken of my disagreements, even my agreements, with the CWI.

However, my membership, although everyone considered me an SP comrade, had not been processed, despite the lapse of almost half a year. I was not trusted and would not be let back in. I could have a telephone discussion with an EC member - I deserved that - but my card was marked.

I gazed at the comrade, a woman of undoubted resource and feeling for our cause, and was disarmed. I knew no word would alter my fate, no appeal to reason could save the day. We exchanged pleasantries and left like lovers fleeing from passion turned sour. I had rejoined because the CWI was part of me. I thought I knew the lingo, but the language had evolved into mutually incomprehensible dialects.

To talk of the past to account for its failures as well as glorying in its champagne moments requires thorough-going and, crucially, open debate. Closed minds cannot change the world, yet the world constantly changes: what worked yesterday may not work today; the menu of tomorrow will be different still. My exit politically from the tradition of the CWI had been going on for years, but the final showing of the door hurt more than I would have thought.

In one sense the CWI is right and I am wrong: I have no place in such an organisation. The rules are clear, the structures are clear and maintain the status quo for ever and ever, amen.

As the fragments of the CWI scatter with the winds, what will become of that tradition? I am as mystified as the next comrade. What I become more and more convinced of is that its dwindling band will become more and more divorced from constructing a force that can change the world. I hope I am wrong, comrades.

Lawrie Coombs